Computers Music Writing

My Setup

As a fan of both The Setup and the Workspace posts on John August’s site, I thought I would make a similar post.  Note that this is for what I do at home, not my day job.

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Christopher.  My day job is in IT, but I consider my “true work” to be a mish-mash of writing and composing/playing music.

What hardware do you use?

I have a desktop system that I built  a few years ago.  It wasn’t high-specced even then, but I have since doubled the amount of RAM as it’s gotten so cheap.  The DVD drive went out, so right now it doesn’t have any optical drives.  I originally put Windows 7 on it, but it now rotates between various linux distros.  I recently put on Ubuntu 12.10 which was working great until I switched video drivers to try out Steam, and now I only get my background, and the log-in screen won’t let me choose a different session.  I can’t believe it’s 2013 and the most “user-friendly” linux distro still has these kind of problems.  Either via USB or an external DVD drive Windows 7 or 8 will be going onto the system, and my days of trying out linux will be over.

I also have 2 Mac laptops, both are now about 5 years old.  The white MacBook has a newer battery that actually works, while the Apple-replaced one in the MacBook Pro barely lasts a few hours (even with dimmed screen, etc.).  The MacBook came with 2GB RAM and that’s the max it can handle; its hard drive was replaced a few years ago with a 7200 RPM one that helped a little bit. The MBP has been upgraded to 4GB RAM but still has it’s original hard drive.  I’ve debated putting an SSD in there, but with the worse battery I think I’ll just start saving towards a MacBook Air or Retina to replace both of them.

I also have an iPad (2nd generation) and my HTC Inspire 4G.  The iPad is still pretty good performance-wise and it’s battery is still great; while I do think a Retina screen would be great I’m in no rush to replace or supplement it.  The phone is getting pretty slow, even with a factory reset.  It was updated from Android 2.2 to 2.3, but I’m on the fence whether to go to a Nexus, iPhone or Windows Phone.  I’ll have to see what may be out later this year.

My key piece of music gear is my Yamaha acoustic guitar.  My very first guitar was a used Yamaha acoustic, and I was happy to finally get another acoustic recently.  It plays extremely well and it didn’t cost so much.  I’ve had various electric guitars over the years, both Strat-style (single-coil pickups) and Les Paul-style (humbucking pickups), but as my interest in certain styles of music has waned so has my interest in those instruments.

I also have an electric bass, and it’s a nice change of pace from playing a 6-string guitar.  It was my most expensive purchase, but once in your hands you can feel it.  I also have an amp to go with it, a simple solid-state combo unit.

I have a PDP 7-piece drum kit, and if it wasn’t for the great price I got it for I would admit it’s totally overkill.  I started with a Pearl double bass pedal but have moved back to a single Pearl 900, as its responsiveness can’t be matched and again my waning interest in music that really used a double pedal.  I added a Pearl brass snare drum, and have Paiste hats and a Zildjian ride.  I’m still looking into a crash, which will likely be one of those brands.  I also have a Latin Percussion cowbell, but until I get a mount it’s not used.  For drumsticks I rotate between thin jazz sticks to thicker 5B or even 2B, from either Vic Firth or Pro Mark.  My throne is a Roc-N-Soc, and my rear thanks me.  I use Pearl 900 hardware.

And what software?

Most of my writing is done within a plain text editor.  I’ve learned to leave formatting (except for screenwriting) until the very end, so the excess features and bloat of any word processor is overkill to me.  As I’ve written before, I also prefer keeping my work in plaintext so that I never get stuck in an obsolete or un-supported file format.  I’ve been burned by Sublime Text’s one update for version 2 and now charging again for 3, so I now rotate between Notepad++ and TextWrangler when working on Windows and Mac accordingly.  When I do need to work on formatting, I am happy in either Word or Pages (even though it’s in sore need of an update).

For screenwriting I use Final Draft.  I started out with Celtx, and for no cost it’s an outstanding value.  I’ve started looking into the Fountain markup language, and if it gains traction in Final Draft then I will likely move my screenwriting to a similar “plain text first and then formatting in a full program later” pattern.

I use Dropbox to keep files synced between the systems.  Right now I have a free account and have more than enough room for my documents and photos; eventually I will probably upgrade and move all my music over to it as well.

I have an older version of Propellerhead’s Reason.  This was before Reason and Record were re-integrated.  In my opinion Reason, like Ableton Live, is coming out with new versions far too often.  I can’t help but feel that it smacks of greed, lack of direction, etc.  I also grew tired of relying on one program to try to compose a whole song, even though I will give the nod to Reason for its completeness.  I do wish they’d upgrade the graphics, as we’re no longer on 800×600 screens and it’s too hard to read the instrument panels.

I do like Propellerhead’s newer iOS app Figure.  It has a very nice interface, and there have been some good updates for it.  I would like to see them apply this to Reason and their other software, and perhaps then I’ll take another look.

For my recording needs I’m fine with using Audacity, and it’s hard to beat free. I’ve dabbled with Garageband and it’s ok; if music was my main focus/income I would definitely go with Logic Pro over anything else.

What would be your dream setup?

I’m pretty happy with the abundance of equipment and options I have.   I still feel I have too much, and will likely continue to downsize and simplify.  I think the 2 older laptops need to be replaced by one good one, and I need to fix the desktop’s OS situation.  For writing I want to be able to work on it at any time and any place, even if I just have a phone or tablet available.  For music, I’m happy with an acoustic guitar and a notepad.  For recording, I may just buy a portable recorder for ideas and rough tracks, and then look into a nice USB mic for recording to the computer.